Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster.
If you’re a Conservative, speaking at an academic conference is always going to be an away match. If you’re also a Leave supporter, in the current climate, it’s going to be downright hostile.
So I knew, when I agreed to address a group of political scientists and psephologists at a university last weekend, that the tone would be anything but academic. I told the organiser beforehand that the audience would come armed with rotten fruit.
Still, I did my best to be analytical as well as prescriptive. I spoke about what had motivated people to vote one way or the other, and I looked at how we might reasonably interpret the result. A 52-48 vote, I argued, was not a mandate to sever all our institutional links with Brussels. A post-EU Britain might replicate many of its current arrangements through bilateral treaties. We should, I suggested, aim to be as Canada to the United States: not part of the federal union on our doorstep, but as close to it as a sovereign country can be in terms of military alliance, free trade, security co-operation and so on.
If you’ve attended an academic conference, you can guess how the audience reacted: with exaggerated leering and eye-rolling, interspersed with occasional heckles and boos.
Your first instinct, in such a situation, is to say: “Fine, then, if you Remainers aren’t interested in compromise, we’ll go our own way”. It was, after all, hardly an unusual experience. Since the vote, I’ve met the same reaction in television studios, at public meetings and online. I make the argument that all sides should work together on a new, looser deal, and reply comes back: “It’s your mess, you racist liar, you clean it up!”
I have to keep reminding myself that university lecturers are not typical Remainers. Nor are TV anchors. Nor are Eddie Izzard, David Lammy, Peter Tatchell or the March for Europe crowd. Nor are the Twitter sociopaths who see all criticism of the EU as xenophobic.
Most Remain voters have in fact accepted the verdict with equanimity. Support for a second referendum, according to YouGov, is just 31 per cent. Many Remainers, like many Leavers, reached their position after much consideration. They don’t despise the other side, because they have friends and family who voted differently. They’re certainly not hoping for bad economic news so as to be able to say “I told you so”.
If you’re a Leave supporter, and you’re struggling to reconcile that last paragraph with the abuse you’ve had on social media, just imagine it the other way around. Imagine that all of us were judged by the behaviour of the stupidest, angriest and most bigoted Leavers. Imagine that the democratic, economic and constitutional arguments for voting Leave were overlooked, and that our entire campaign was presented as being nativist and nostalgic.
This is, in fact, pretty much what is happening, not just on social media, but on many broadcast media. Every incident of intolerance is suddenly treated as a product of the referendum. Everything that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart and the rest of us said about building consent for controlled immigration is dismissed. Actually, it isn’t even dismissed: some Remainers never heard it in the first place, because it didn’t fit their narrative.
Here are two observations from behavioural psychology. First, human beings are good at seeing what they want – quite literally. In experiments, when words are slowly illuminated on a screen, we see the nice words seconds before we see the nasty ones. Second, human beings struggle to understand disagreement. The other side must be looking at the same facts as us, we think, so why can’t they see what we see? Are they idiots, or are their real motives different from their stated motives?
When a Remainer calls you a bigot, it isn’t a debating point. He genuinely thinks that you hold the views he ascribes to you. And – this needs saying – the reverse is also true. Leavers have to keep reminding themselves that many patriots supported the EU from decent and sincere motives. Most Remainers are not Remoaners. Most people who voted to stay in the EU none the less want Britain to prosper outside it.
How much misunderstanding, how much misery, comes from the natural human tendency to associate every cause with its most strident advocates. During the Troubles, many British people used to refer to Republican terrorists as “the Irish”. On one level, they knew that the IRA had minimal public support and that there were more terrorists in prison in the Republic than in the UK. But the appropriation of nationalist imagery by the paramilitaries made an elision inevitable.
Listen, likewise, to the way in which many English people now talk about the SNP as “the Scots”. Most Scots voted against independence, yet Nicola Sturgeon’s prominence and energy, and her embrace of the symbols of Scottish nationhood, encourage a sort of erroneous shorthand.
Think of it as a piece of faulty wiring in our brains. It explains the symbiotic relationship between Islamic radicals and the English Defence League, who mentally bracket each other, respectively, as “the Muslims” and “the English”. It lies behind most forms of sectarianism and racism.
To guard against that tendency requires effort. Even at that political scientists’ conference, most delegates engaged intelligently. It’s just that an audience of 150, in which 130 people listen politely while 20 smirk and heckle, naturally comes across as hostile.
On the day of the referendum, I argued on this website that a narrow result, either way, would oblige the winners to compromise:
‘A narrow leave vote is not a mandate for anything precipitate or radical. It is a mandate for a phased repatriation of power, with the agreement, wherever possible, of our European allies. Many of our existing arrangements will remain in place; and those which we want to disapply won’t be scrapped overnight. Brexit, in other words, will be a process rather than an event. It will be the moment when Britain starts to pursue a different trajectory, away from political union with the EU and toward a looser arrangement based on trade and co-operation.’
My guess is that this will now happen. Many Eurocrats regard a market-based associate status not as a minimally acceptable compromise, but as their preferred outcome. Here, for example, is the Bruegel Institute, the closest thing in Brussels to an official in-house EU think tank:
‘The UK will want to have some control over labour mobility, as well as leaving behind the EU’s supranational decision-making. Our proposed continental partnership would consist in participating in goods, services, capital mobility and some temporary labour mobility as well as in a new system of inter-governmental decision making and enforcement of common rules to protect the homogeneity of the deeply integrated market… This results in a Europe with an inner circle, the EU, with deep and political integration, and an outer circle with less integration. Over the long-run this could also serve as a vision for structuring relations with Turkey, Ukraine and other countries.’
There is, in short, a deal to be done – a deal which might go too far for some and not far enough for others, but which both sides could at least live with. Come, moderate Remainers. Don’t let the whingers and the deniers drown you out. We need to hear from you.